The authority of Scripture

This is the sixth of a series of posts on inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics.

Preliminary Remarks The purpose of these next few posts is to examine my perspective of the doctrine of the Fall, and specifically how it is influenced by my view of the Bible. The purpose of this post is apologetic rather than polemic: my purpose is less to convince anyone of the view I hold and more to explain how someone who holds it deals with doctrinal issues. The earlier posts in this series argued that our Scriptures are not inerrant and are not in fact completely without scientific and historical errors. I also made a plea for interpreting the Bible as literature: that is, we need to recognize that the words of Scripture were not completely isolated from the words written by their authors’ contemporaries and we must therefore identify the literary genre in which they were composed as a first order of business when interpreting the Bible. I cautioned against a view of the nature of Scripture that overspiritualizes its origins, pointing out that if God had wished to set down a series of unanalyzable propositions free from all impurities and the influence of man’s fallibility, He could definitely have chosen a more suitable means than using words written in three different languages over several centuries that must in turn be passed down through many more centuries and translated into countless other languages. Moreover, Christians are left bickering and head-butting each other while trying to determine the supposedly undistilled, pristine, immutable, and uncontradictable truth for almost any given passage. The fundamentalist might understandably wish that God had provided an inerrant and infallible key to interpretation, one decidedly more reliable than the deceptively straight-forward “literal whenever possible” model, which itself all too rarely yields a single, indisputable outcome in its application.

The problem is that the idea of not having an inerrant and hence perfectly uncontestable final authority makes many Christians uncomfortable, and sets many to wondering how rejecting inerrancy limits the Bible’s value and usefulness. The next few installments of this series are meant to address two concerns related to that question. First, I will summarize my belief in the Bible’s origins and nature; second, I want to present a case study of the resultant hermeneutic, with a brief and tentative exposition of how I interpret the passages that have resulted in the doctrine of the Fall.

Basic assumptions

The participants in any debate come to the table with a number of presuppositions and assumptions. I don’t believe it’s possible to nearly divest oneself of them all, but I would like to be as honest as possible in divulging the ones I’ve identified and consider relevant.

First, I affirm that God intended the whole canon of Scripture for His Church’s use. Throughout history, God has interacted with His creation, revealing Himself to mankind and guiding it towards better and better understandings of Himself and His ways. Rather than entrusting this cross-generational, accumulative knowledge of His truth solely to word of mouth transmission, He called men to testify to these truths using a somewhat less mutable mode of transmission: the written word. This impulse to testify with the pen manifested itself on each occasion in a form of literature familiar to its authors and original recipients. God naturally had interest in seeing that those writings most profitable for His Church be recognized as such and dubbed with a notable authority and accessibility; this concern was addressed with the canonization of Scripture.

When I talk about the “authority” of Scripture, I am referring to the unique status of certain works of human literature that were plucked from the rest and elevated to a special status. This status is rooted in the principle Paul articulates about the Old Testament in 1 Tim. 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The church’s successive efforts at canonization extended the virtue of profitability for theological and pragmatic insights to the New Testament, and this gave the whole Bible (more or less as we have it) a Providential seal of approval that I refer to as “authority”. I make no claims about the Bible being “authoritative” in the same exaggerated degree that most evangelicals and all fundamentalists do, because this is surely an overextension of Paul’s principle: he could very well have stated the supremacy of the Scriptures’ authority if he wished, and I see it as a clear abuse of his measured description of their usefulness to claim that he meant to establish the “verbal, plenary” view of inspiration.

The inerrantists agree with the presupposition of Scripture being authorized by God. Many argue that this presupposition is proved, or at least affirmed, by the alleged fact that the Bible is completely without error of any kind; if the Bible is not inerrant, these often see no other possible basis for believing in its authority. While it is true that inerrancy would constitute almost undeniable evidence of the Bible’s authority and its teachings’ validity, denying inerrancy nonetheless negates neither, especially when there are other grounds for belief in them.

Specifically, another of the philosophical underpinnings of my view alluded to above is very similar to one that has long been the guiding force of Catholicism, and its surest justification. The role of the Community of Believers in parsing and passing on divine revelation is the basis for Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Protestants have customarily been horrified by the Catholic rejection of sola scriptura in favor of scriptura et traditio. A Catholic puts Holy Scripture alongside Church tradition because the two are in origin and essence indistinguishable: Holy Scripture is itself a form of Church tradition, the testimony of ancient believers affirmed and handed down by subsequent believers. By this same standard of approval, we rightly esteem Scripture as having seniority because the same timeless, Providentially-guided body that created it has ranked it so.

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  • Hi Steve,
    I have enjoyed your series of posts. I look forward to this sequence on the Fall–definitely an interest of mine. If you have any thoughts on the Fall before the Fall (Satan’s) I’d be interested.

    — Vance

  • Hi Steve,
    I have enjoyed your series of posts. I look forward to this sequence on the Fall–definitely an interest of mine. If you have any thoughts on the Fall before the Fall (Satan’s) I’d be interested.

    — Vance

  • Thanks for dropping by, Vance. I’m glad you have enjoyed them.

    I have little to no understanding about the person and history of Satan. I can tell you that I think it was a dreadful mistake for Christians to read him as the referent of Isaiah 14:12 (Lucifer), which referred to a Babylonian king, and Ezekiel 28, which referred to the king of Tyre. It was a mistake (of the Alexandrian tradition, apparently) to read Satan (whoever or whatever he is) into these passages. I’m the first to tell you, however, that I don’t know what’s going on with him elsewhere. Admittedly, this is a weak point that I haven’t scoped out yet. The subsequent installments of this series will address the origin of human evil, however. Please come back for those 🙂

  • Thanks for dropping by, Vance. I’m glad you have enjoyed them.

    I have little to no understanding about the person and history of Satan. I can tell you that I think it was a dreadful mistake for Christians to read him as the referent of Isaiah 14:12 (Lucifer), which referred to a Babylonian king, and Ezekiel 28, which referred to the king of Tyre. It was a mistake (of the Alexandrian tradition, apparently) to read Satan (whoever or whatever he is) into these passages. I’m the first to tell you, however, that I don’t know what’s going on with him elsewhere. Admittedly, this is a weak point that I haven’t scoped out yet. The subsequent installments of this series will address the origin of human evil, however. Please come back for those 🙂

  • Specifically, another of the philosophical underpinnings of my view alluded to above is very similar to one that has long been the guiding force of Catholicism, and its surest justification.

    Where is the line drawn between Providentially-guided Tradition and the traditions of men? How does the Church distinguish between the two? How does God (through this “Providentially-guided body”) perform this function today?

    Questions and questions to go before I sleep … 😉

  • Specifically, another of the philosophical underpinnings of my view alluded to above is very similar to one that has long been the guiding force of Catholicism, and its surest justification.

    Where is the line drawn between Providentially-guided Tradition and the traditions of men? How does the Church distinguish between the two? How does God (through this “Providentially-guided body”) perform this function today?

    Questions and questions to go before I sleep … 😉

  • Well, for one thing, the phrase “traditions of men” acquired its negative connotations from Jesus using it in reference to the Pharisees’ law upon law upon law added to the Mosaic Law. This doesn’t really apply to “tradition” as I’m describing it, doctrine as passed down by the Church.

    But getting at the intent of your question, notice that I said that the body that created and ratified the Bible was Providentially-guided; I think that the Bible and tradition both testify to the Truth of God which remains unbottled, the NT being the weightiest for its proximity to the Truth Himself. The Bible testifies to absolute truth as reported by eyewitnesses. The Church has not been an eyewitness to the events of the Heilsgeschichte, so of course it is less authoritative, and more apt to err. When weighing the authority of the Church and the Bible, we should take the testimony of the Bible more seriously than subsequent tradition because anyone who trusts the Church at all will find that the Church itself (even the RCC) has never claimed to attain to the level of authority that Scripture has; in fact, the Church historically has not even credibly claimed new revelation since the canon. To me it seems like the importance of the Church in formulating doctrine waned ever since it created the canon.

    Does this address your question at all?

  • Well, for one thing, the phrase “traditions of men” acquired its negative connotations from Jesus using it in reference to the Pharisees’ law upon law upon law added to the Mosaic Law. This doesn’t really apply to “tradition” as I’m describing it, doctrine as passed down by the Church.

    But getting at the intent of your question, notice that I said that the body that created and ratified the Bible was Providentially-guided; I think that the Bible and tradition both testify to the Truth of God which remains unbottled, the NT being the weightiest for its proximity to the Truth Himself. The Bible testifies to absolute truth as reported by eyewitnesses. The Church has not been an eyewitness to the events of the Heilsgeschichte, so of course it is less authoritative, and more apt to err. When weighing the authority of the Church and the Bible, we should take the testimony of the Bible more seriously than subsequent tradition because anyone who trusts the Church at all will find that the Church itself (even the RCC) has never claimed to attain to the level of authority that Scripture has; in fact, the Church historically has not even credibly claimed new revelation since the canon. To me it seems like the importance of the Church in formulating doctrine waned ever since it created the canon.

    Does this address your question at all?

  • Does this address your question at all?

    Unfortunately, no. It seems to me that your decision to demarcate the boundary between authoritative tradition and non-authoritative tradition is merely your own opinion or perception of history.

    who trusts the Church at all will find that the Church itself (even the RCC) has never claimed to attain to the level of authority that Scripture has

    The RCC believes that authority lies in a triad of sources, all equally infallible: written scripture, unwritten tradition, and the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the RCC insofar as there is agreement between the Pope and the body of bishops).

    The Catechism states:

    85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

    Although the Catechism states in the next section that “this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant,” I believe that, in this instance, the Catechism falls prey to circular reasoning. Without the authority of the Magisterium, mankind is hopeless to obtain a correct interpreation of either the Bible or Tradition. The RCC can, in effect, declare any number of competing interpretations to be the correct one.

    In fact, the Catechism later states:

    95 It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others.

    But I digress …

    When was the canon officially established? By whom was it established, and did they possess the authority to establish it? If the canon was established (by whatever means and authority), was it before or after the First Council of Nicea (AD 325)? If I’m not mistaken, the Synod of Hippo (AD 393) and the subsequent Councils of Carthage (AD 397 and 419) were the first major bodies to confirm the content of the NT Canon. Unfortunately, none of them (i.e., Hippo and Carthage) are recognized as being ecumenical!

    According to your proposition, we might very well be required to accept the Nicean Creed as revised by the Council of Constantinople (AD 381), since this council met during the time the NT canon was confirmed, albeit not by a universally recognized council or synod. (Oddly enough, the first council to actually spell out the contents of the NT was the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1546!)

  • Does this address your question at all?

    Unfortunately, no. It seems to me that your decision to demarcate the boundary between authoritative tradition and non-authoritative tradition is merely your own opinion or perception of history.

    who trusts the Church at all will find that the Church itself (even the RCC) has never claimed to attain to the level of authority that Scripture has

    The RCC believes that authority lies in a triad of sources, all equally infallible: written scripture, unwritten tradition, and the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the RCC insofar as there is agreement between the Pope and the body of bishops).

    The Catechism states:

    85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

    Although the Catechism states in the next section that “this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant,” I believe that, in this instance, the Catechism falls prey to circular reasoning. Without the authority of the Magisterium, mankind is hopeless to obtain a correct interpreation of either the Bible or Tradition. The RCC can, in effect, declare any number of competing interpretations to be the correct one.

    In fact, the Catechism later states:

    95 It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others.

    But I digress …

    When was the canon officially established? By whom was it established, and did they possess the authority to establish it? If the canon was established (by whatever means and authority), was it before or after the First Council of Nicea (AD 325)? If I’m not mistaken, the Synod of Hippo (AD 393) and the subsequent Councils of Carthage (AD 397 and 419) were the first major bodies to confirm the content of the NT Canon. Unfortunately, none of them (i.e., Hippo and Carthage) are recognized as being ecumenical!

    According to your proposition, we might very well be required to accept the Nicean Creed as revised by the Council of Constantinople (AD 381), since this council met during the time the NT canon was confirmed, albeit not by a universally recognized council or synod. (Oddly enough, the first council to actually spell out the contents of the NT was the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1546!)

  • It seems to me that your decision to demarcate the boundary between authoritative tradition and non-authoritative tradition is merely your own opinion or perception of history.
    It is no more arbitrary than Protestants who accept the Church’s definition of the canon without question and then deny the rest of the RCC’s tradition. In fact, it is quite related to that position, except that I, more consistently than those Protestants, hold neither to be error-free.

    Mike, I think there’s quite a difference in the authority of the source and the authority/infallibility of interpretation. The subject of your Catholic quotes above is the “authentic interpretation of the Word of God” and the “task of interpretation” rather than the source for the Truth of God. The way I understand the official stance of the RCC is that Scripture is the ultimate source (the PC), but that the Church and the Magisterium are the official interpreters (the monitor) of that truth.

    You are quite right to question the actual canon as formalized today. But keep in mind that by 500 or so, both the Eastern and the Western Church had accepted our NT as it stands (including Revelation, which may have been a mistake 🙂 ), and I think we should always give such unanimity the benefit of the doubt when necessary.

    I’m curious – do you affirm the authority of the canon? If so, on what grounds? It seems to me that the Scriptures, the canon, and church tradition rise and fall together.

  • It seems to me that your decision to demarcate the boundary between authoritative tradition and non-authoritative tradition is merely your own opinion or perception of history.
    It is no more arbitrary than Protestants who accept the Church’s definition of the canon without question and then deny the rest of the RCC’s tradition. In fact, it is quite related to that position, except that I, more consistently than those Protestants, hold neither to be error-free.

    Mike, I think there’s quite a difference in the authority of the source and the authority/infallibility of interpretation. The subject of your Catholic quotes above is the “authentic interpretation of the Word of God” and the “task of interpretation” rather than the source for the Truth of God. The way I understand the official stance of the RCC is that Scripture is the ultimate source (the PC), but that the Church and the Magisterium are the official interpreters (the monitor) of that truth.

    You are quite right to question the actual canon as formalized today. But keep in mind that by 500 or so, both the Eastern and the Western Church had accepted our NT as it stands (including Revelation, which may have been a mistake 🙂 ), and I think we should always give such unanimity the benefit of the doubt when necessary.

    I’m curious – do you affirm the authority of the canon? If so, on what grounds? It seems to me that the Scriptures, the canon, and church tradition rise and fall together.

  • I, more consistently than those Protestants, hold neither to be error-free.

    If I understand you correctly, you believe that the Church’s canon as currently defined could be wrong? It seems so when I notice you consider the possibiity that the acceptance of Revelation into the canon could have been a mistake.

    The way I understand the official stance of the RCC is that Scripture is the ultimate source (the PC), but that the Church and the Magisterium are the official interpreters (the monitor) of that truth.

    Interesting analogy. I like it. Obviously, the RCC needs to get a new monitor. 😉

    do you affirm the authority of the canon? If so, on what grounds?

    I neither affirm nor deny, for I have not yet come to a conclusion on that issue. Considering the fact that there was never a formalized canon for the Jews before the arrival of the Messiah, it makes me wonder why we should expect otherwise when it comes to the Christian canon.

    It seems to me that the Scriptures, the canon, and church tradition rise and fall together.

    This is a surprising statement considering your stance. If there had been error introduced into the development of the canon, then the Scriptures could also contain err — ohhhhhhhhhhhh. I think I see your point. Maybe. Am I getting warm?

  • I, more consistently than those Protestants, hold neither to be error-free.

    If I understand you correctly, you believe that the Church’s canon as currently defined could be wrong? It seems so when I notice you consider the possibiity that the acceptance of Revelation into the canon could have been a mistake.

    The way I understand the official stance of the RCC is that Scripture is the ultimate source (the PC), but that the Church and the Magisterium are the official interpreters (the monitor) of that truth.

    Interesting analogy. I like it. Obviously, the RCC needs to get a new monitor. 😉

    do you affirm the authority of the canon? If so, on what grounds?

    I neither affirm nor deny, for I have not yet come to a conclusion on that issue. Considering the fact that there was never a formalized canon for the Jews before the arrival of the Messiah, it makes me wonder why we should expect otherwise when it comes to the Christian canon.

    It seems to me that the Scriptures, the canon, and church tradition rise and fall together.

    This is a surprising statement considering your stance. If there had been error introduced into the development of the canon, then the Scriptures could also contain err — ohhhhhhhhhhhh. I think I see your point. Maybe. Am I getting warm?

  • I think you’re catching my drift, Mike.

  • I think you’re catching my drift, Mike.